If you ask me, autumn is one of the best times of the year for photography. You just don't get such a beautiful range of vibrant colors at any other time of the year. Spring comes close, but even in the spring those vibrant colors just aren't as omnipresent as they are in the autumn, when every deciduous tree and the ground beneath it is overflowing with brilliant yellows, oranges and reds.
[ Top image Autumnal Remembrance by Flickr user Edward.rhys]
But have you ever been disappointed by your fall foliage images? Have you ever come home, opened them up on your computer, and thought to yourself that the colors just weren’t quite how you remember them?
The unfortunate truth is that even modern digital cameras aren’t always capable of reproducing those brilliant colors with the level of accuracy we would like them to. So it could be you’ve gotten everything else right—your composition is perfect, you nailed the focus, but the colors are just disappointing. The good news is that, provided you are comfortable in post-processing, it’s a pretty simple matter to improve those colors after the fact. Here’s how.
Before you take the photo …
There are definitely things that you can do to get the best possible photograph before you head over to post-processing, so I’m not going to start off this discussion without first giving you some suggestions for getting a great image in-camera. Remember that you’ll get the best range of colors if you shoot at a low ISO, because lower ISOs are better at reproducing those subtle changes between tones. Shooting in RAW (if your camera has that capability) is also a very good idea—when you shoot in JPEG you’re getting an 8-bit image, but when you shoot in RAW you’re getting 12- or 14-bit. This means that you get more color tones overall when you shoot in RAW, which ultimately means that the colors in your photo are going to be a lot closer to what you saw in person.
Also make sure you’re shooting at the right time of day—in general, colors are going to appear richer and more beautiful when you shoot at either end of the day (during the golden hour). One hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset are the best times to capture fall colors because the light is softer and more even. And the color of the light during the golden hour is naturally warm, so that can also help compliment those warm fall colors. By contrast, when you shoot at midday that bright, direct overhead light can produce detail-killing black shadows and highlights and give you very poor color overall.
Overcast days can also be good for fall colors—while paler colors can be muted by that filtered sunlight, brighter colors can actually look more vibrant on a cloudy day.
How to brighten colors after the fact
Now that you’ve actually captured the image, let’s talk about what steps you can take to make those colors even more beautiful in post-processing.
For the purposes of this tutorial, we’re going to be using Photoshop. Remember that different versions of Photoshop (and related programs like Photoshop Elements) are going to have slightly different menu options and procedures for getting things done, so you may have to make some adjustments depending on which software package you own and what version it is.
The first step you need to take (obviously) is to open up the photo. Make sure that the layers palette is visible on the right side of the screen; if not, go to Window > Layers to enable it. Now click on the little half black/half white circle on the bottom of the layers palette to add an adjustment layer. Select “curves” from the menu.
In the window that pops up, look for the drop down menu labeled “curves.” Select “increase contrast” from the drop down menu, which will most likely give you a pretty dramatic result. Don’t worry if it’s more than you want—we’re not finished yet.
Close the window and go back to the layers palette. Make sure that adjustment layer is selected and change the opacity—how much depends on how profound you want that increase in contrast to be. Typically you won’t want more than 25 to 35 percent, but use your own judgment.
Now, most of the time you’re not going to have a photo of fall foliage alone. There are going to be other elements in the frame, such as the branches of trees or walkways through the forest. Our goal is to make adjustments only to the leaves themselves, which means that you’re going to need to mask out anything that you don’t intend to change.
To do this, click on the “mask” canvas in the layers palette—that’s the big white square that appears on the adjustment layer you just created. Now choose the paintbrush tool from the menu bar on the left side of the frame. Make sure your foreground color is set to a true black (look for the pair of overlapping squares towards the bottom of the tools palette on the left side of the screen, then look above that at the set of miniature overlapping squares—you can click the double arrow next to those smaller squares to switch between a black foreground and a white foreground.) Once you’ve got the foreground color set to black, paint over all the areas on the photo that you DON’T want changing when you make those adjustments to the foliage (walkways, tree branches, water features etc.) Note that you’re not going to see black appear on that image, you’ll just see that contrast you added in the previous step disappear from the parts of the image that you’re painting over. To see the mask itself, look at that mask canvas. As you paint, black will appear on that part of the screen only. And you don’t need perfection for this—if you miss a few leaf tips or if you overlap something you didn’t mean to overlap, it’s not really going to be obvious in your final image.
Now let’s say you want to add color rather than just contrast—you need to select the foliage, which is a simple matter since you have already masked out everything that is not foliage. Hold down the CTRL key (command on a Mac) and click on that mask canvas. You’ll get “marching ants” around the foliage, or around everything outside of what you painted into the mask.
Now you need to add another adjustment layer—click on that half black/half white circle again and choose “Hue/Saturation.” Here’s where all the magic happens—play with all three of the sliders (Hue/Saturation/Lightness) to change the foliage.
To change the colors themselves, move the “Hue” slider. To change the richness or boldness of those colors, move the “Saturation” slider. To make the colors darker or lighter, move the “Lightness” slider. How much you choose to move those sliders is, of course, entirely up to you. You could just further saturate the colors that are already there, or you could change them completely. With this technique it is even possible to turn green foliage into fall foliage—just move the “Hue” slider into the red and orange zone.
The only thing I would caution you to do is to not go overboard—it can be pretty easy to lose yourself in this technique when you discover how much control you have over all those amazing colors. Try not to tweak the colors so much that they start to look unnatural—too much saturation can also kill detail, so it’s best to stop before anyone starts to suspect that you’ve made any post processing adjustments. To really see what’s happening to those colors as you make your adjustments, you need to view the image at pixel-level, which means zooming in until you’re at least at 100 percent magnification. Then watch the details as you move the sliders back and forth—if they start to become muddy or they blend together, then you’ve gone too far.
I like to recommend this technique for people who have thus far shied away from post-processing. It’s not as simple as a basic levels adjustment, but as soon as you get used to the steps it’s really quite easy to implement. And I think you’ll find that your results are stunning—almost certainly worth the small amount of effort you will put into any one file once you get the hang of doing this. And the best part is that you no longer have to be disappointed in the colors of your fall foliage photographs—they’re all going to enter a world of fixability, and you may even find yourself returning to some of those photos from autumns past to make the same changes. Once your fall photos really look the way autumn looks to your own eyes in your own neighborhood, you’ll almost certainly find yourself eagerly anticipating this time of the year and all it has to offer.
- When you take the photo …
- Shoot in RAW
- Shoot during the golden hour
- Open your file up in post processing
- Add an adjustment layer
- Increase the contrast
- Add a mask
- Create a second adjustment layer
- Change the hue and saturation
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